As the Americas Cup challengers begin Round Robin 2, the important thing to watch is for improvements in performance. Over the past 10 days every boat has had modifications, new sails, and strategic reviews. There is great anticipation that the changes will be for the better. But Americas Cup experience demonstrates that teams often take a step backwards before making real progress. This is the risk that teams take when making changes without adequate testing time. A ten day period is short.
Team Dennis Conner was mildly disappointed with their 4 win – 4 loss opening round. The squad spent more time on the water over the past week than any other team. In an interesting move, Conner is keeping USA66 out on the water. One must speculate that either he is comfortable with this boats speed or USA77 is not quite ready. The team is in no danger of elimination but it is critical that they end up in the top four bracket which is essentially a double elimination series versus the bottom bracket which is a single elimination series.
On the Americas Cup Class yachts, small adjustments can make a big difference in speed. Moving a mast forward or aft six inches can dramatically change the balance of the boat. Sails are shaped to conform to the bending characteristics of the mast. Adjustments are made for every increment of wind speed.
Like most modern ocean racing yachts, computers display a theoretical boatspeed for every wind condition. The job of the sailor is to attain these dictated levels. The process becomes more of a science than an art, which goes against the grain of most sailors who tend to be artists and not scientists. Most champion sailors grew up racing small dinghies without instruments. In essence, they “race by the seat of their pants.” It can be frustrating trying to decide between your own gut feeling and what the numbers dictate that your boat should be achieving. It makes you wonder if someday the whole process will be played as a video game.
Its possible to sail faster than the performance prediction programs. This is when you learn that real progress has been made. But in spite of all the numbers and the designers analyzing endless details, the biggest learning curve comes from actual on-the-water racing. The challengers have the opportunity to test against eight other boats, all of which have different sailing characteristics. These races dramatically speed up the process. While boats occasionally take a step backwards, the general trend is forward progress. As time goes on the speed differential between boats will narrow. The big question is will all this racing produce a boat that is ultimately faster than Team New Zealand?
The challengers have taken a gamble racing in New Zealands early spring because weather delays seem to ruin the regatta 50 percent of the time. Delays do allow more time for analysis, but the athlete sailors need to be careful not to get frustrated by the postponements.
In professional football there is a saying that on any given Sunday one team can beat another. When you factor in the vagaries of the wind and tides of the Haruaki Gulf, this old football adage also applies to Americas Cup yachts. But while it is entirely possible that an undefeated team can lose to an upstart on one windshift, in the long run the fastest boat always wins. The emphasis at this time is generating boatspeed, and theres no better way to judge performance than the challenger trials.
Editors Note: This column also appears at http://www.espn.com. The cable television station will broadcast the Americas Cup Match from Auckland, New Zealand, in February.